Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Botswana
Postal rates in Botswana are reasonable, and airmail to the United States generally takes about a week. Mail supplies can be purchased at all post office branches. Sending large packages via airmail can be very expensive, but smaller items such as photographs or CDs can be sent for a reasonable fee. Surface mail from the United States to Botswana takes two months or more to arrive. Advise your family and friends to keep all documentation related to the packages they send to Botswana so that any package that does not arrive can be traced. Postal insurance is a good idea when sending packages from the United States.
During pre-service training, your mail should be sent to the Peace Corps office address (Private Bag 00243, Gaborone, Botswana). The Peace Corps staff will then forward your mail to the training site. After training, you can give your family and friends the address of your site of assignment.
Domestic and international phone service is available throughout Botswana. Service is more expensive than in the United States, particularly for international calls. While there are few public phone booths, individuals offering phone services can be found in nearly every corner of small towns and villages. You can purchase a cellphone in-country for less than $100, although ones with additional features can cost considerably more, and the network covers most towns and larger villages. The Peace Corps does not provide cellphones to Volunteers but will help them identify suitable options for purchase.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Most larger villages and towns in Botswana have Internet cafes. However, your access to e-mail will be scant during the nine weeks of pre-service training because e-mail is not available at the training site or, in most cases, in the training host villages. E-mail is likely to be available, however, in the town closest to the training site, so you should be able to access e-mail at an Internet cafe during off-hours and on weekends.
Housing and Site Location
Your housing is contributed by the government of Botswana or other partner organizations. Because of the wide range of housing in Botswana, there is considerable variance in Volunteer living situations. You should come prepared to accept the Peace Corps’ minimum standard for housing— a single room that is clean and can be secured with a lock, with access to clean water and sanitary bathroom and cooking facilities. Electricity and piped-in water are not required by the Peace Corps.
Volunteers placed at the district level can expect fairly comfortable housing, which typically means a two-bedroom cement house with a kitchen, indoor plumbing, and electricity. Volunteers based at the village can expect housing to be more rustic, perhaps a room in a family dwelling in which services are limited to nonexistent. The government or partner organization is responsible for providing limited furnishings (a bed, a table, a chair, and some sort of closet space) and covering the cost of utilities (cooking gas, electricity, water, etc.).
Living Allowance and Money Management
The Peace Corps provides each Volunteer with a small “walkaround” allowance during training, a settling-in allowance to cover some of the costs of setting up a new home, and a monthly living allowance (roughly equivalent to $290) that is intended to cover basic expenses. In addition, you will be paid a leave allowance equal to $24 per month and a travel allowance for Peace Corps-related trips (e.g., trips to the capital for shots, meetings, etc.). All allowances are paid in local currency. The living allowance is deposited directly into your bank account (which you will set up before completion of pre-service training) on a quarterly basis.
Volunteers are expected to live modestly. The living allowance supports a very simple lifestyle and does not include money for things like weekly trips to the movies or phone calls home.
Food and Diet
The absence of basic food items is not an issue in Botswana. In fact, Volunteers may be surprised to find a large variety of English and American products, such as Heinz ketchup, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and M&M’s. Fresh fruits and vegetables are widely available, even in outlying areas. However, access to specialty foods and grocery stores does vary according to one’s placement. Those posted to district-level or large towns will be able to buy food items in their immediate vicinity. Those posted to villages, particularly in very rural spots, will be limited to periodic shopping trips in the larger towns.
The traditional diet in Botswana relies heavily on meat and starches (notably corn or maize, beans, rice, potatoes, and sorghum). Starches are usually served in a stew or with gravy, made of vegetables like cabbages, tomatoes, greens, and onions. Beetroot and butternut often give color to a dish.
Committed vegetarians will find it relatively easy to maintain their diet but will have to find a way to convince meat-loving Batswana of the healthiness of their choice. Note that consumption of meat is given particular importance in some cultural celebrations.
In general, it is not difficult to get around in Botswana. Common and inexpensive forms of public transportation include buses, trains, and private taxis. Buses travel on a fairly regular schedule throughout the country, although transfers may be necessary to reach your destination. Buses range in size from combis (10- to 12-seat minivans) to large luxury buses (think Greyhound). While most transportation is reliable, the Peace Corps encourages Volunteers to assess the condition of both the vehicle and the driver before boarding.
Passenger trains run twice daily from Gaborone (in the south) to Francistown (a seven-hour ride to the north). An overnight train departs from Lobatse in the evening, arriving in Francistown early the next morning and continuing on to Zimbabwe. When boarding the evening train, its advisable to board second-class accommodation to avoid security incidents. The trains south from Francistown also run twice daily and once overnight. The rates are reasonable, but the train has become increasingly run-down. The Peace Corps’ recommended mode of transport among Volunteer sites and the capital is a luxury bus, and Volunteers’ travel allowances reflect the slightly higher cost of this service. While many Volunteers are tempted to hitchhike, Peace Corps/Botswana strongly discourages this practice.
In fulfillment of the three goals of the Peace Corps, Volunteers are expected to make their host community the center of their social life and to stay at their site unless on approved vacation or work travel. But the types of activities and relationships that constitute a social life will vary according to the Volunteer’s own interests and site assignment. Those in more urban settings will find a host of facilities, organizations, and other social outlets. Those in more rural settings may find limited formal social structures; in such cases, host families and friends in the community often become the center around which social activity revolves.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Botswana places great importance on conservative dress in the workplace. The norms of professional dress mean slacks, shirts, and ties for men and dresses or skirts for women. It is seen as a sign of respect for others when you dress “smart,” and how you are viewed by your colleagues will be highly dependent on the way you present yourself. Tennis shoes, sneakers, or Teva-type sandals are not appropriate footwear for work. Although jeans and T-shirts are acceptable as casual wear, it is more common to see men wearing shirts with collars and casual slacks and women wearing skirts or slacks with blouses or casual dresses during non-work hours.
Sleeveless tops with spaghetti straps, tank tops, and low-cut tops are not appropriate for women outside the capital and larger towns.
All Volunteers should bring at least one business outfit (i.e., a suit or jacket and tie for men; a long, conservative dress or skirt for women). There will be occasions that bring Volunteers face-to-face with senior diplomats, traditional authorities, and civil servants, for which professional dress is expected.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Botswana
Volunteers are likely to complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Botswana. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Invariably, Volunteers who have completed their service speak of the relationships that they have established as the highlight of their service. Many speak of how they have learned to value and respect a more family- and community-centered way of life and of how they have grown in patience and understanding. Most are able to point to specific contributions they have made to a country’s development. In Botswana, such contributions might include increasing the dialogue about HIV/AIDS, promoting the use of HIV/AIDS programs and services, seeing co-workers adopt new ways of accomplishing their jobs with an increase in productivity and effectiveness, decreasing stigma and discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS, and helping organizations develop and implement HIV/AIDS programs.
Such positive reflections are the endpoint of a series of highs and lows that are part and parcel of the process of leaving the United States, entering Botswana, and adapting to the practices and pace of life in a new culture.
You will have less guidance and direction than you would get in a new job in the United States. Things will undoubtedly move at a much slower pace than you are accustomed to. You will probably need to make a paradigm shift from the American orientation toward tangible results to the Batswana love for a consultative process and protocol. To succeed in this environment, you will need a high degree of patience, self-confidence, creativity, and flexibility. If you do not deal well with gray areas, Botswana is probably not a good match for you. But if you come with a healthy respect for the process of being a Peace Corps Volunteer, as well as a desire to make tangible changes, you will have an incredible experience.